Sunday, 4 November 2012

City Lights - Part 1

Books, clothes, accessories and most importantly memories of two great years were in those airbags and suitcases. They were getting crammed in the tiny space available in the air conditioned railway compartment of the 12863 HWH-YPR express. We were going back one final time and some of the closest friends in the two years had come to drop us off. The feelings were mixed – the joy of finishing a professional course, the sadness of having to leave such happy days behind, the excitement of the professional world that awaited us… it was all there. As the lights of the twin towers of IIT Kharagpur faded out far away, the city lights awaited us!

Having stayed in one city for almost all of my life, the answer you’ll get from me on which city I love the most is obvious. Even during most part of the two year MBA course that I stayed away, I kind of knew that I would get back to my city itself after the course. Also, during the summer internship, I had the privilege of staying at home. The joy was only compounded when I got an offer letter stating about the location of my new workplace.  Back then, it was placements season at college and the discussions would usually be around which city is good to settle down and make some money and the other things centered around them.  I used to listen to them with great interest. Some used to shout that Mumbai was India’s heaven on earth and some thought that Pune and Kolkata were great places to save money. There were some who wanted to be in Chandigarh and Gurgaon or NCR because it was closer to their homes and more “homely” than other metros. But the two southern cities they dreaded the most were Chennai and Trivandrum. Even some localites from Chennai had some sort of aversion to going back to Chennai. It was something which baffled me then. Why do some cities become a instant hit and bring happiness to people while others are feared so much that people spend days together crying when they get their work location as these cities?

I have given it some thought for quite some time now and realized that it is those strong memories which people associate with a city that make it good or bad in their perception. Consider for example, even if Gurgaon is one of the sophisticated and high-fi cities in India right now, just because I have heard a strong unpleasant memory /story relating to it, I never feel it is good. Even if all the other factors and surveys report the city to be good, it is ultimately the mind-set in the people which would go a long way in them liking/disliking the city. And then comes the familiarity angle. If you stay in a city long enough, you get used to the place, the culture and the way of life that you start loving the city. The more you get to know about the city’s history and why certain things are the way they are, there will be more appreciation of the place rather than contempt or disdain. Imagine having to land in an unknown city at night and having to speak an unfamiliar language to the local taxiwalas to take you to someplace which is not your permanent home. Now compare that to landing in your hometown at midnight and telling the local autowalah in your own language something like - 'guroo, Vijayanagar bartiraa?' Need I say more?

In the next part of this post, I list down few prominent cities in India which I have been to and the emotions/stories that I associate with them. There is also a lasting memory of the place which kind of defines the city for me. Of course, your opinions could be different based on your own experiences. You may feel free to add on to this list at the end so that even I get to hear about more city experiences and memories.
I have spent very less time in the financial capital of India, Mumbai to say anything about it but one emotion which I can immediately associate with it is HOPE. Some years ago, we had been there during the monsoons. Like most Indian cities, rains wreak havoc in Mumbai too. However, I was really amazed to find that nothing could deter the city from going on. We could always find some people on the streets busy with their work, regardless of the weather or the time of the day. We could always see that hope in people's eyes - be it the dabbawalahs who sang all the time they carried heavy lunch boxes in crowded local trains, the vendors near the railway stations who sold every possible item you can imagine or the people living in the slums alongside the railway tracks – they all seemed to have dreams with the hope that Mumbai would fulfil the dreams. One takeaway memory of the place is that of the monsoons. It is really amazing to see how people go about their work during this time of the year without caring for the downpour or the hardships it brings to them. The rains are perhaps the soul of Mumbai and the people's reaction to it - its true spirit

The next city on the list is one of the earliest British settlements - Chennai. I have not spent much time in this city owing to its proximity to my home city. Whenever I have been there, it was during transit to farther cities or for small works which would not last more than a day. However, the thing which I can instantly attach to this city is HUNGER for KNOWLEDGE. There is something about the city which makes you want to learn things. The feelings for this city can be best summarized with an anecdote about the city.

During my summer-time application for MBA, I got a call from IIT Madras, DoMS for a GD/PI at their campus. My initial reaction after seeing that call letter was indifference. Who would go to Chennai when most institutes would conduct their processes at Bangalore? That too, there was nothing motivating about the institute (ratings wise) or the city itself which made me want to go there for a day long process, let alone study for two years. After much deliberation, I decided to go and attend the process because getting a holiday to travel was easy. I took the KSRTC’s flagship Airavat Volvo to Chennai with a strong bias against the city. And as soon as I set foot on it, most of my initial feelings about the city were reinforced. The Autowalahs deliberately pretended not to understand anything other than tamil and dropped me off at the campus gate, while still taking the full fare till the hostel. I had to walk almost 2 km to reach the hostels in the morning heat and humidity of Chennai which further irritated me. I was made to wait for another frustrating hour outside the hostel till the admissions committee member came and allotted me to a tiny hostel room. By the time I finished the bland breakfast in the mess and came back to the room, I had almost decided that I could not study in such a place for two years.

A couple of other aspirants like myself who were there in the hostels kept discussing about pros and cons about doing MBA from institutes known for technological excellence. I was so biased that all the cons were taken in happily and the pros were conveniently filtered out. We then went to the DoMS in the afternoon for the process and were made to sit in a AC classroom waiting for the process to begin. A religious looking professor with vermillon applied to his forehead (a stereotype south Indian, especially the Tambrahm types) walked in to talk to us about the institute and the course they offered. It was the first time I was listening to a professor from IIT and even to this day, that talk for one hour remains one of the best talks I have ever heard in college. The way he was able to seek attention from disinterested people like us, describe the course and the institute’s legacy to us was totally out of the world. In his talk, he even described the beauty of the city and its culture, by quoting from the scriptures. It was an amazing turn-around for me.  My entire perspective of viewing the city and the institute had changed in a matter of minutes. The seemingly insignificant troubles I had to undergo to be there that day dint seem to matter for me. The city was offering me knowledge and it had induced the hunger in me to seek it. I dint care about the pros and cons or the rankings of the institute anymore. I just wanted a chance to be in a premier institute like that and listen to more of such professors. I had my own doubts on whether I could stay in a hostel after spending all my life living at home. But all that dint seem to matter anymore - it had given me that thirst. The special Friday night 'Pulav and seviyan' dinner at the hostel tasted even better that night. A friend I made there and I shared an auto back to MAS for our trains and even that autowalah seemed friendly. This one incident made me realize the power of perception. If you look at things in the right perspective, everything about the city feels good. And that is what Chennai taught me in a day. 

Every city has both a heart as well as a soul. A stay of a very long duration would be needed to experience the metaphorical heart of the city. But getting to and experiencing the soul of the city is something which takes more than that long duration stay. It happens to very few people who spend their lifetimes exploring cities and understanding its true identity. And the realization of having experienced this feeling is also too hard for someone to notice.  The next two cities which I want to write about are the ones which are very dear to me – both individually and collectively.  These are the state capitals of the two states (one a former national capital as well) where I have collectively spent almost my entire life. The cities are Kolkata, the city of joy and the awesome namma Bengalooru. I have had innumerable experiences/memories in these two cities such that narrowing it to one simple thought or incident would be very tough. I am still not sure if I have experienced the souls of these two cities but in the numerous experiences that I have had, I certainly have experienced the large, caring heart with which these cities have embraced me.

[continued in part 2]
1. HWH-YPR express: An Indian railways' superfast train that runs from Howrah, WB to Yeswantpur, KAR. It connects the cities of Kolkata and Bangalore, passing through the states of WB, Orissa, AP, TN and Karnataka
2. MAS - Station code for the 'Chennai Central' railway station - one of the oldest stations in India


Giria said...

'innor ivattu kodi'
You should have written more about the Mumbai rain experiences when you had been there in rains of August. I think you have a different blog on that, a link to that would be great :)

And for Chennai, i dont think you can change anyone's mind about Chennai with this blog :P

Shashia said...

Ha ha ha... innoor aivatu :P too much!

Chennai? I am not changing anyone's mind! I am just saying maybe its better not to become judgemental or prejudiced about cities

Mumbai rains blog - adrado main agi :P coming up shortly!